OKLAHOMA CITY — An arts and craft supply company owned by a Christian family asked a judge Thursday to block a portion of the new federal health care law, claiming that mandated coverage for certain birth control violates its religious freedom rights.
Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.'s owners believe the use of morning-after and week-after birth control pills are tantamount to abortion because they prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's womb. At a federal court hearing Thursday, a government lawyer said the drugs do not cause abortions and that the U.S. has compelling interest in mandating insurance coverage for them.
The company, which is self-insured, says it will face a daily $1.3 million fine beginning Jan. 1 if it ignores the law. U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton did not rule on the company's request for an injunction but noted Hobby Lobby's deadline for compliance.
"This does raise a lot of new and different issues," he said. "There's not a lot of guidance out there."
Hobby Lobby is the largest business to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that forces all companies, regardless of religious conviction, to provide coverage of drugs that the lawsuit alleges are abortion-inducing. The Green family also objects to providing coverage for certain kinds of intrauterine devices that the lawsuit alleges can destroy an embryo by preventing it from implanting in a woman's uterus.
Company lawyer Kyle Duncan said "millions of Americans" would consider drugs that prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb an abortifacient.
"The purpose of these drugs is emergency contraception," Duncan said. "We don't cover pregnancy termination."
Government lawyer Michelle Bennett disagreed and said failing to mandate insurance coverage for the drugs would increase the number of unwanted pregnancies. Bennett said the drugs "do not terminate pregnancy," and instead prevent one from occurring.
The morning-after pill works by preventing ovulation or fertilization. In medical terms, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg attaches itself to the wall of the uterus. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it can reduce a woman's chances of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent.
But critics of the contraceptive say it is the equivalent of an abortion pill because it can prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus.
The Green family filed suit in September, saying the law would force them to "to violate their deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines, penalties and lawsuits." It claims the mandate is unconstitutional.
Duncan said the company has no objection to other forms of birth control and includes them in its insurance plan.
"Hobby Lobby ought to be able to get a narrow exemption," Duncan said.
Hobby Lobby calls itself a "biblically founded business" and is closed on Sundays, provides spiritual counseling for its employees and does not sell products that are inconsistent with its owners' religion. Founded in 1972, the company now operates more than 500 stores in 41 states and employs more than 13,000 full-time employees who are eligible for health insurance coverage.
The lawsuit also was filed on behalf of Mardel Inc., another of the family's businesses. The bookstore and education company, also based in Oklahoma City, sells a variety of Christian-themed materials. It operates 35 stores in seven states and has 372 full-time employees.
In a separate case involving a Detroit-area company owned by Roman Catholics, Weingartz Supply Co. on Wednesday won an early round in its lawsuit challenging the health care law's mandate requiring contraception coverage. A federal judge blocked the government from taking any action against that company, which sells outdoor power equipment. The company is challenging the contraception mandate on religious grounds.